The political direction of Colombia and the fate of many Colombians will be decided in run-off elections this coming Sunday, June 15. Who becomes president of Colombia matters because the man elected will determine whether or not to continue what some consider to be the misguided negotiations with the narco-guerilla group known as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
Colombian President Jose Manuel Santos began negotiations with the FARC approximately eighteen months ago. His opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, won in the first round of elections that took place in Colombia on May 25. Santos’ second place finish was not necessarily the result of economic failure, nor was it about violations of civil rights or attacks on democracy.
Santos’ loss was most likely the result of his initiation and continued investment in his peace dialogue with the FARC. The FARC is not only a guerrilla group. As time went by, the FARC turned into a dangerous and murderous group that killed thousands of innocent Colombians and kidnapped hundreds more. The FARC grew into one of the largest drug cartels, threatening the stability of Colombia and converting it into a lawless country.
The election results do not show an overwhelming victory for Zuluaga of the Democratic Centre (backed by former president Alvaro Uribe) who won 29.25 percent of the vote. However, the results did indicate that Santos lost a large part of the political capital that he, ironically, inherited from former President Álvaro Uribe. Santos and his Social Party for National Unity received 25.69 percent of the vote, 4 percent less than Zuluaga. Yet, for the run-off, Zuluaga received the endorsement of the Conservative Party (15.52 percent), led by Maria Lucia Ramirez. Santos received the endorsement of the Union Patriotica, a party founded by the FARC that was illegal until last year, and ran in the Polo Democratico Alternativo ticket.
These parties received a combined 15.23 percent of the vote. However, Polo Democratico Alternativo, led by Clara Lopez, refused to endorse any of the candidates for the run-off. Meanwhile, the Green Party, led by Enrique Peñaloza, received 8.3 percent of the votes and has not taken a position on the run-off. Yet, Peñaloza, although socialist-leaning, has praised the tenure of former President Uribe and has highlighted his achievements in restoring order to Colombia. On the other hand, he blasted Santos for using the negotiations with the FARC as a political electoral tool.
Voters in the Colombian election cast their ballots for the different parties and their respective platforms. This is a sign that Colombia is experiencing what every normal country in the world does. In other words, since the FARC was significantly diminished due to the policies of former President Uribe (with the help of Plan Colombia), Colombians may make their electoral choices without having to worry as much about the activities of the FARC. However, despite the normalization of Colombia, in certain regions of the country fear of the FARC is still very much present.
Still, we cannot ignore the fact that Santos, whose party inherited a lot of political capital from the Uribe years, was weakened by the emergence of the Democratic Centre, an alternative political party that calls for the restoration of Uribe’s policies and objects to the current negotiations with the FARC. Furthermore, current polls indicate that Zuluaga would defeat Santos in the June 15 run-off, 45 to 35 percent.
Colombia managed to reinstate law and order thanks to the assertiveness of President Uribe (2002-2010) and the Colombian people who were willing to be taxed for that purpose.
Thus, the government made tremendous progress in weakening the FARC. The guerrilla lost a big part of the territory it controlled, as well a number of their strongest leaders.
Approximately 18 months ago, Santos began a dialogue with the FARC in Havana with the sponsorship of Cuba, Venezuela, and Piñera’s Chile (the latter serving as a facade). Cuba and Venezuela have maintained a strong relationship with the FARC and have supported it.
Since Cuba and Venezuela looked like the future of the region and the main agents of regional dynamics, a chain of socialist governments began to dominate the scene. Likewise, regional integration sounded very tempting to every country in Latin America, socialist and non-socialist alike. It was in this context that Santos began negotiations with the much feared and despised FARC guerrilla, against the will of the people and with the strong objection of his mentor, former President Uribe.
By the same token, the United States blessed the negotiations and openly supported Santos’s efforts. In a recent foreign policy address to a graduating class at West Point, President Barack Obama delivered what is believed to be a sort of “Obama Doctrine.” In his speech he made the following points:
America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism; it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.
In another part of his West Point speech, the President pointed out:
For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism… I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.
Precisely because Obama is correct, we ask why the United States is interested in going along with regional policies encouraged by tyrannies such as Cuba and Venezuela.
By the same token, isn’t the FARC an unrepentant terrorist group that continues its attacks as negotiations are taking place? Isn’t the FARC a merciless organization of drug traffickers, kidnappers, money launderers, and criminals that has connections to other terrorist groups such as ETA, Hezbollah, and Hamas (with Venezuela as the main convener of these groups)? Isn’t the FARC one of the largest drug cartels that the United States has spent money and energy combating in Colombia, and now in Mexico?
While it is true that some former guerrilla groups have given up terrorism and adapted to democratic politics (like the M-19 in Colombia or the Tupamaros in Uruguay), the FARC is far from showing a similar attitude.
The FARC remains involved in an array of criminal activities. At the end of May, FARC units carried out several attacks against Colombian military bases and civilian houses. Likewise, the FARC placed explosives in the town hall of Yondo, the Department of Antioquia, and in other places in Colombia.
At present, the FARC, although weakened, has about 8,000 fighters and controls about 20 percent of the Colombian territory and 60 percent of the country’s cocaine production with an estimated revenue of US$2-3 billion. The drug issue is one important item that is far from being resolved. Can Colombia afford a compromise that leads to less than the dissolution of the FARC as we know it?
In this regard, Santos and Uribe, and perhaps Zuluaga, have two different perceptions of the FARC. Uribe used the power of the state to try to militarily defeat the FARC and reduced their numbers by half, because he believed negotiating with terrorists would never lead to a lasting peace. Uribe wanted to destroy the FARC, not give them legitimacy. While the FARC has not changed its ways or given any indication that they are willing to co-exist as peaceful members of society, Santos seems to believe that it is better to bring them into the political process (which is what they want), rather than using the military to defeat them.
For Colombians, the situation is not a hypothetical question. It is the reality they have faced and will continue to face. Although Zuluaga does not say he will cease the current negotiations with the FARC, he has effectively broken the delusional views of Santos, who remains optimistic about the unrepentant FARC. He will try to convince his people that negotiations with the them can succeed, and that without an agreement, Colombians will never live in peace.
This article first appeared on The Americas Report.